Sharply differing policies are emerging between US Rep. Larry Combest, Republican Chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, and Ann Veneman, Bush's secretary of agriculture. In June, in a rare public attack on Secretary Veneman as reported by the New York Times, he accused her of wrongly declaring some crop price subsidies to be trade distorting. Under rulings adopted by the World Trade Organization (WTO), governments subsidizing farmers for their crops, like grain destined for export, can be considered in restraint of world trade.
When asked whether the proposed House farm bill violates the world trade rulings of which the United States is a signer, Secretary Veneman replied cryptically: "The president would not sign a farm bill that would exceed the limit of the trade agreement."
Secretary Veneman has made it obvious from the start of her tenure that she was a strong supporter of the World Trade Organization, whose policies organized labor, farmers and environmentalists successfully opposed in Seattle nearly two years ago. In a one-page press release at the time of her appointment to the Bush Cabinet, she managed to indicate no less than three times her intention to promote ever-increasing world export of American farm products. Nothing could be more pleasing for agribusiness which has been exporting grain at prices well below farmers' true costs (dumping) for a long time. In fact, over the past decade, American grain exports have doubled, a marvelous bonanza for the grain export monopolies.
Is there a contradiction here? Is exporting farm products at prices well below farmers' costs dumping? It is hard to argue that it isn't. On the other hand, is it better to allow the dumping that insure superprofits for the grain monopolies?
Dumping is bad. Monopoly superprofits are bad. Why not world trade agreements prohibiting dumping and congressional legislation that supports parity prices for farmers, thereby eliminating the need for government subsidies? It should be remembered that such parity price legislation existed under President Franklin Roosevelt. It protected producers of storable crops for 20 years.
It is pleasing to note that within Congress some positive steps are being taken that could solve the contradiction. Rep. Combest has withdrawn his name as a sponsor of a measure requested by President Bush which would impose on the Congress the highly undemocratic Fast Track restriction on any bill regulating free trade. For such bills, if authorized by Congress, no floor debate is allowed. Each House can only vote "yes" or "no". Fast Track is used to ram unpopular measures through Congress.
With Rep. Combest, R-Texas, Chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, opposed, Fast Track should be blocked in the House. As for the Senate, its chances are even less, with Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, as chairman and Sen. Dick Lugar of Indiana as ranking Republican in opposition.
The other favorable factor is the rising support in both the House and Senate for shifting a great portion of projected subsidies to cash awards for conservation practices. These include measures to control soil erosion by wind and rain, pollution of land and waterways by excessive use of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. etc. Large numbers of family farmers already practice such ecologically favorable methods. Under this legislation they would get substantial income for what they are already doing. If passed, these will be strong incentives for others to practice good husbandry.
This issue of substituting conservation payments for crop subsidies has strong support in the Senate. Democrat Harkin and Republican Lugar have been holding hearings in many farming communities. They have made the shift to conservation payments a central proposal for the new farm bill. At present Harkin is the chairman and Lugar the ranking member of the Senate farm committee. Until recently, their roles were reversed. But the Senate switch of chairs did not affect their continued collaboration. The proposed Senate bill includes major support for good husbandry.
There is conservation action in the House as well. There, 125 Congress members have cosponsored an amendment to the proposed House farm bill which too would shift more money to farmers who pursue environmentally favorable practices.
Do the proposed farm bills solve the farm crisis? Far from it. But they are vitally necessary to keep families on the farm and operating. In the near future, after winning the present battle comes search for fundamental solutions.
Lem Harris is a longtime writer on agricultural issues. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.